The third in the occasional series of ten-minute looks at topics in the news during the time we’re looking at covers the Kennedy assassination. Click through for the transcript:
Welcome to the third episode of “I Read The News Today, Oh Boy”. As I explained in the previous episodes, these are ten-minute bonuses looking at news events that happened at the time we’re looking at in the main episode, to provide some background on the cultural context in which the music we’re looking at is being made. Today’s is on something that one sort of expects everyone to know about, but the Kennedy assassination was almost sixty years ago now, and it’s entirely possible that many people have only the vaguest idea of what happened, or why it is important in twentieth century history. I should also say, given that this is about someone’s death, that the theme music I use for these episodes is not meant to imply that they will always be about actual good news — I don’t think Kennedy’s murder was a good thing.
Obviously, there isn’t much room in ten minutes to tell the full story, but here’s the basics.
John F Kennedy was elected President in 1960, in a very closely-fought campaign, one of the first modern Presidential campaigns in which the TV played a big part — in his debates with the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, people listening to the radio tended to think that Nixon had won, but people watching on TV, seeing handsome young John F Kennedy debating with a jowly man who looked much older — though in truth Nixon was only four years older than Kennedy, thought Kennedy had won. When he was elected, aged forty-three, he became the youngest person ever elected President.
He was also the first Catholic to be elected, and this made him unpopular with a large chunk of the public. He actually had to make public statements in his campaign that he would be working for the American people, not the Pope. Kennedy eventually won the election by an extremely narrow margin — he won the popular vote by 0.2% — and there were widespread accusations by Republicans that he’d won by voter fraud, though these have largely been debunked.
Kennedy was, by and large, a popular President once in office. He was charismatic, intelligent, and young. He was a war hero and a Pulitzer prize winning writer (though it’s later been revealed that his prize-winning book was ghostwritten by one of his speechwriters), he had a broadly popular programme of mild liberal reforms on the domestic side coupled with strong anti-communism in foreign policy. His election at the start of a new decade was widely seen as a sign of hope — and in his inaugural speech he spoke of how “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century”.
But he made enemies. In particular, he had enemies in two overlapping groups. One was the Mafia — Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was strongly rumoured to have ties to organised crime, and the Mafia had been supportive of Kennedy’s Presidential run, but when he came to power he and his brother Robert, who became Attorney General, started a crackdown on organised crime, which the Mafia saw as a betrayal. The other group was white supremacists. Kennedy had been publicly supportive of the civil rights movement — as most white supremacists were also anti-Catholic, it’s easy to see how Kennedy would have been unpopular with them.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was in Dallas, Texas, to give a speech, and was driving through the city in an open-topped car, when he and the governor of Texas, who was travelling in the same car, were shot. Kennedy was killed. It’s hard to understand now just how shocking this was to most people — people broke down and wept in the streets, and the stock market plunged. The TV stations all went to rolling news formats, cancelling normal programming for several days, and many of the top forty radio stations switched to playing classical music until Kennedy’s memorial service. Not everyone mourned, but enough people did that if there is such a thing as a national mood, for several months in late 1963 and early 64, the national mood in the US was despondent. Phil Spector’s Christmas album, which we’ll be looking at in a backer bonus podcast next week, was pulled from the shelves — people didn’t want happy Christmas music in 1963.
Shortly after the shooting, a former Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the murder. Oswald was someone who had defected to Russia at one point and later redefected, but who was still a Communist and a vocal supporter of the Cuban Castro regime, and who had previously attempted to kill a leader of the far-right John Birch Society. There was a lot of evidence against Oswald, but two days later he was shot while being transported from the police station to the jail, by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who some have said had links to organised crime, though Ruby always maintained that he was acting out of anger at Oswald’s murder of Kennedy.
Because of this, and because Oswald never stood trial, there have been many conspiracy theories around the murder, some with more support than others, but none hugely convincing. Those accused have ranged from Fidel Castro, to the Mafia, to the CIA, to Kennedy’s Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson. There have been various investigations of the evidence over the years, and most have come to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. But a substantial proportion of the population believed otherwise. Some have good reason for this belief — there are bits of evidence that are contradictory and perhaps tell a different story — but for many, it was as much about their own inability to cope with the shock of the murder, as it was any rational assessment of the evidence. Things like that just didn’t happen, and there must have been a bigger reason than one man deciding to do a terrible thing.
Sadly, though, things like that do just happen. The same day that Kennedy had given his address to the nation on Civil Rights, a few months earlier, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers had been murdered for his activism, and over the course of the sixties we will see time and again how progressive political figures in the US got shot and killed. As we go through the sixties, we’ll see a lot of great music, but sadly not very much in the way of good news.